Click and drag. Drag and drop. The points on the rendering of a screw snap into place. A blocky three-dimensional graphic on the LCD monitor gives a lazy twirl. Arnie shuffles through tabs on the Excel file for the name. Military issue T9-42A. Label the file and submit.
The room is silent. A tap of the mouse or tremble of bass from the artists’ headphones is muted under soundproof rugs and insulated ceiling tiles. The building could be driven past a million times without an inkling of what goes on inside.
Arnie checks the clock. His day is nearly over. Vacation tomorrow. He’s not told the team much about where he is going or what he plans on doing. The team has a sort of soft anonymity to one another, and to overshare is uncouth.
And there’s no way to spare to make anyone understand what he wants to do. He’s seen the photos in the A-Block of the cube farm every morning as he enters and every night as he leaves. The artist who sits at that desk, standing before a great red rock. Her hands in the air, triumphant. Her hair glowing in the setting sun.
It had become like an icon. Every time he passes the photo, something stirs within him. A latent spirituality. It is confusing and uncomfortable in the sterile office building. It feels humiliating. Like a nascent fetish that everyone else picks up on.
Yet he still found himself searching online where the photo was taken. And after a few attempts, he was led to a state park in Utah. The money and vacation time would be completely manageable. He booked the trip.
From that point on, his dreams are filled with red rocks and golden sun. He tilts his head up to the top of the rocks, and spies the shadow of God. He wakes and feels embarrassed.
Shut down the terminal. Head out. Pay pilgrimage to the icon once more. He looks at the photo with a holy respect and the semblance of a smile. His coworker glances up from her desk. He flushes, and leaves the office.
His things are packed. Good walking shoes. Water bottle. He has read online how to prepare for these sorts of trips. He is not a hiker, much less a person who spends time in deserts. The backs of his calves twitch like he is standing before a steep drop. He swallows, and his stomach growls in warning.
He knows what he must do. He knows he must go to the red rock. Any other concern or worry is a flaw of his programming.
In the morning, he takes a cab to the airport. The cabbie asks him where he is going, and he tells him. He can see the cabbie size him up in the rear view mirror, and then laugh silently to himself. Arnie bites his lip and drops his gaze back to his lap.
Why is it so embarrassing to want to feel more of a spirit called into action within you? Why is it so humiliating to be closer to God?
The cab ride continues without words between the two men. Two talk show radio guests take turns insulting each other over the speakers.
The plane ride is simple. The plane ride is anticlimactic. The plane ride is utilitarian. All of these descriptors fit uncomfortably into Arnie’s vision of the voyage. Should seeking out the golden sunlight, that perfect light in an alien place, feel so easy? It did not fit well into the image of a pilgrim’s quest.
The hotel in Utah could be a hotel in any city of any state. They have plastered the town’s name on the stationary head, behind the front desk. But if there were no windows, it could exist anywhere. It could exist nowhere. It could simply be a rendering on a screen of what a hotel should be.
Arnie does not sleep soundly that night. A glass of red wine from the hotel bar curls around his stomach. He finds himself regretting having come. No, not regretting that. Regretting the fact that having come makes him so anxious. Maybe the timing wasn’t right. Maybe he is stupid.
Open the pill bottle. Drop and swallow. He takes a benzo to organize his mind. Save and submit.
He wakes up early. In the hotel’s business center, he pays a premium to print out maps to the exact spot in the park. He fills his water bottle. He ties a compass to his hip.
On the door of his room, he catches sight of himself. Exceedingly thin. Pale. Taking up more space than usual with hiking accoutrements. He scowls, his brow furrowing more deeply the longer he looks. He asks himself if this is the image of someone worthy of meeting God.
He takes a cab to the state park. He notices he is without cell service when they arrive. He asks the cab driver to return in the afternoon. The cab driver agrees, but the agreement carries little weight. It floats around in the cab’s exhaust as the cabbie drives away.
Arnie heads to the entrance and pays his fees. The park employee stresses repeatedly to stay hydrated. It’s a hot day with lots of golden sun. She senses his apprehension and smiles. She recommends a beginner’s trail.
His face reddens. He tilts down his head, the company baseball cap shielding his eyes. He mutters that he knows his way. His thin shoulders tremble a bit as he asserts himself.
He pays his entrance fee on a credit card, and shoves his wallet back into the recesses of his many zippered pockets. In one is a signal mirror. Another holds a whistle, a flint and steel. He is customized with the correct parts.
He begins to march up the trail. The scrubby trees at the park entrance cast shadows that creep along the surface of the desert sand like alien fingers. They brush along the bottoms of his feet. They point him forward, forward.
He realizes a few moments later that he has already missed a turn, outlined in gray on the grayscale printout of the map. He feels the blood beat in his cheeks. Stupid. Stupid. Faith in his own way is already proving untrustworthy.
Anxiously, he corrects the turn. The path begins to incline. The sand begins to pack into harder terrain, and rocks rise around him. He is in a tunnel of red. The light at the end of it, perhaps, like what was in that photo.
As he stumbles around a turn in the path, he thinks again of the photo. The tunnel gives way to 75 gray cubicles, arranged into their various blocks.
He is at the farthest reaches, the Small Parts team. He is again at his desk, tweaking some wingnut or washer design with precision. Pinch and pull. Pull and pinch. Undo, redo.
The part has slowly shifted. The gray, unnameable polygon shape twists into the coworker. The rock slowly inches up behind her. But it is just a reproduction. There is no lighting to apply. That isn’t his job. He does the shapes, not the colors. Someone else decides that.
The terrain becomes uneven as he enters into the bottom of a rocky slope.
Does the artist in the A-Block work on lighting? Arnie considers this. He isn’t sure what she does. The teams do not share the nature of their work. Partially due to the fact that it is classified, but mostly due to the fact it is boring. It is safe.
The rocks at Arnie’s feet jump as he walks over them. His ankle buckles a bit under the movement. His hands fly out, and over his shoulder he spots red rock arches off in the distance, over the side of a rising cliff.
He tries to admire it for a moment, but he can’t. The sun is hitting the arches wrong. There is no glory. There is only average beauty. That safe beauty.
Safe. Safe. Safety is boring. Glory is power. That is why he is here, after all. He isn’t at work. He tries to shake the thoughts out of his head. His stomach moans. He takes a sip of water.
What will he do once at the rock? Well, obviously, pose in the same way. Let the light flow into him. Raise his arms above his head in the spectacle of the ancient sun. Feel a sort of unknowable connection with the Earth. It will come. It will have to come. Why else would he have bothered to travel here at all?
His foot meets a rock jutting out of the uneven trail, and he trips. His legs splay across the path. He drops the water bottle from his hand, and it rolls toward the edge of the cliff.
Stop it. Grab it. Catch it. The commands come separately, and he scrambles after the bottle.
He springs up. One hand scoops up the water bottle, his thumb slipping under the loop that attaches it to his belt. The bottle is stopped, but not his body. The momentum of his slide across the loose rocks carries him to the cliff’s edge. He does not slow. His body leaves the side of the cliff.
As he falls, he watches the sun, just starting to shift into the height of the sky. He feels himself curl into a ball before the ground meets him.
Every part of his body is alert. They all scream out a single message of pain. His eyes close for a second, and he moans. Dust from the sand immediately enters his lungs, and he begins to gag.
As he lifts his hand to brace his chest, Arnie finds the water bottle still dangling off his thumb. He winces. With a tender tug of the bottle cap, he opens the bottle and takes a sip. The dust coating his mouth turns to mud and slides into his stomach.
He pushes himself up from the ground slowly. Everything hurts in such a way that he can’t find what is actually injured. He tries to flex each joint. His left shoulder aches, but everything else is simply sore. No breaks, then. Just bruises.
Pulling himself into a seated position, he looks back up to the cliff. It is a good twelve or so feet off the ground. He idly considers trying to climb back up. That plan is immediately replaced with waiting for another hiker to pass along the trail, and calling to them for help.
Sweat beads down the small of his back. How long until another hiker comes along? He only has so much water. He fishes his good arm into his pockets and retrieves his phone.
The screen is shattered into a hundred small pieces, some of which are embedded into the touchscreen below. In the noontime sun, he can see his own concerned face looking back at him. He drops the phone back into his pocket, and pulls out the maps instead.
Nothing on the maps to indicate an alternate trail. He printed only the simplest directions to the red rock. The heat of the sand below him begins to sear his ass.
He reluctantly stands, his shoulder throbbing as he pulls himself up. There must be some way back up to the overhead trail if he follows it at ground level. Someone else surely has to have fallen before.
He begins to walk forward along the sand. His head is racing. Attempts to reassure himself are like his remaining water thrown on a house fire. They sizzle in waste as the roof caves in under the heat.
He walks for what seems to be an hour. The sun has shifted considerably. Maybe in fact it is two hours. His water bottle grows lower and lower. The cliff slowly rises from twelve feet in the air to fifteen, twenty. The sun’s movement causes it to throw a larger and larger shadow over Arnie.
Then, the ground begins to firm up again. Rocks slowly inch out of the ground on either side of him. Promising. Promising. Perhaps the world is shifting right into the place he needs it to be.
He continues on the hardening terrain. However, while the rocks continue to rise, the path doesn’t seem to change much. It does not wind like the higher trail. It is oddly straight. Artificially straight.
As the sun slowly moves from the top of his head to his shoulder, the terrain again changes. He notices the slow encroach of rocks. But they are not the loose rocks of the higher path. They are smaller.
In another few yards, he realizes he is walking on gravel. He pauses, and stares at the gravel.
He assesses. What has gravel? Man-made trails. Parking lots. Could he be back to a park parking lot? That would be ideal. Someone can give him a ride to a doctor from there. Or call the ranger. The idea of needing help sends a twinge of shame down his spine, but his throbbing shoulder encourages him.
He hikes on. The gravel becomes more densely packed. Eventually, the rock walls form a fork. Again, a choice. He peeks in both directions. The high rock walls block off any indication to which way either piece of the path goes. Out comes the map. No fork. No part of the small grayscale square that looks anything like this, really.
He looks for divine guidance. As he looks from one trail to another, the sun seems to settle on the left.
Well, suppose this isn’t the route to the parking lot at all. Suppose it somehow goes to the red rocks. Maybe he can still reach them. And maybe there will be other hikers there. Once he puts his fists over his head, or fist, depending on the left shoulder, he can ask them for help. He can still do it. It will not be a waste after all.
So with that decided, he takes the left side of the fork, and pushes deeper down the trail. His water bottle is drained save for a sip, maybe two. He feels his sweat slowly dry up, and fail to be replaced with new sweat. His feet begin to stumble into each other more often. The sun dips lower into the sky.
His foot strikes something hard. Pavement. Concrete. The path has changed into a sidewalk. He tries to make sense of it, but it shimmers in the heat, and his eyes cross if he looks too hard at it.
Keep pressing forward. Step one, step two. Hup, hup. Open and close. Left and right. The rock walls begin to decline around him. Ahead of him, a clearing appears.
The pavement slowly returns to gravel, then to sand. The expanse opens.
Before him lies a stretch of desert. But there, just beyond it. Under a sinking sun, the shape of several buildings. Before them is a tall chain-link fence, barbed wire curled at the top. And in the middle, some sort of vehicle gate, the entry bar tipped to an open position.
In spite of the shifting sand, he finds himself running forward toward the buildings. He is unsure what he is looking at, but he knows what it represents. People, people with things like water and phones. The sand kicks up into a dust cloud around him as he rushes forward.
As he grows closer to the gate, he sees no one in the guard shack. A single camera peers out at his approaching figure, blinking alternately red and green. He slows at the gate, and waits. No one seems to be alerted of his presence.
He feels a nausea come over him as he waits. He needs a drink, desperately. His lips stick together. Yet no one has come to greet him. Hesitantly, he walks in through the gate, and approaches the buildings.
At his left are four larger buildings. His schematics experience tells him that they are clearly hangars. They sit identically, one after the other. Closest to him is some sort of modular house, and a smaller one sits to its right. Beyond it, slightly offset, is another hangar.
Arnie hesitates. Where is this? Has he broken into some kind of base? Without any sort of pushback whatsoever? Surely if this is a base, some sort of official would have met him. Or is it still under construction?
His swimming head pushes him toward the nearest modular house, and he knocks on the door. No answer comes from within. He knocks again. Then, he tries the door.
It opens with ease, and leads him into an office. Two desks face one another, oak tag folders littered on top of both. CRT monitors display a Windows XP screensaver. In one corner is a water cooler.
Arnie trips over himself toward the water cooler, putting his lips directly on the nozzle, and pushing the blue lever down. He drinks with a violence. Water spills down his cheeks and chin, soaking the front of his shirt anew. He pauses only to gasp for air, and to drink again.
After a moment of rest, he is moderately recovered. His shoulder again pulses as he pushes himself back up from the ground. He walks over to one of the computers, and shakes the mouse. The lock screen shows only the name “Admin” and a blue avatar. In the top corner, he finds that it is nearly 4 PM.
On the desk is a phone. He lifts up the handset. A woman’s voice murmurs in the ear piece.
A bored, recorded British voice. “Please enter the authorization.”
He pushes down the switch hook, and a dial tone sounds. He lifts his hand to dial.
Again. “Please enter the authorization.”
He tries 911. He is only met with silence, and then, after a moment, “Please enter the authorization.”
He puts down the handset and lets out an irritated sound. Now hydrated, he feels the full concern of the situation begin to beat its head against the sides of his stomach. Bile creeps up into the back of his throat.
He searches the desk for a sticky note, something with a password or any other information. But the desk is barren save for the files. He moves to the other desk. Exactly the same.
He grabs a folder from the top of the stack and opens it, his dusty hands leaving brown fingerprints across the oak tag. Inside the folder sits a stack of various papers, all in squat text. They describe various vehicles: a work truck, a van. He closes the folder and pulls out the next. A geological survey of the area. It describes the terrain. More sand and dust. The next folder describes various ecological systems in the area. A lake apparently sits some 16 miles to the east. Next folder, schematics.
He pauses. Schematics. Friendly, safe schematics. A rendering, some sort of metal plate fashioned into a circle. Scrawled in red pen in the corner is a bullet-pointed list. Corrections, maybe.
Page two, another schematic. This appears to be a steel box. Suction zones are attached to the edges of its open bottom. A large circular opening is at one side. More red notes, the circular opening starred and arrows indicating a circular motion around it.
Page three, a picture of a sort of hose. It is coiled like a dryer hose, but much wider. The red pen on this page reads only, “John?”
Page four is not printed like the others, but a hand-sketched drawing. It depicts a sort of domed shape, eraser marks cutting away at what was once a box shape. Again, a circular hole, but now in the center of the dome. Faintly in one corner is a partially erased comment on the grid paper. Only the phrase “never going to” is still legible.
Below the schematics is another stack of documents, all written in the same squat font. Arnie returns the documents to their folder, and then rights the folders on the desk. His stomach is fighting him. The schematics do not feel as safe as usual.
He looks up from the desk, and finds a window at the back of the office. Something large and dark lies off in the distance. He goes to the window and squints.
An enormous hole, maybe fifteen feet around, sits behind the two modular houses. Arnie tries to understand it. Unlike the desert rocks and sands, it is very clearly and purposefully dug out of the earth. He watches for a moment. Nothing moves out of place. The hole sits stationary, looking back at him.
A strange feeling. Could it be—a sense of glory? The lowering sun is beating over the top of the hole with a golden force. The dirty sand begins to glow.
It is not the icon. It is not the red rocks. But it might be something else. Something new, something for him to discover on his own. Maybe it was fate that brought him here. Maybe this is the glory of God.
He turns back to the door of the modular house, and opens it into the heat of the desert. The sand beneath his feet seems lighter, as if it is parting for him. The other modular house passes by, and he approaches the hole.
A smell hits him. It is foul. He is reminded of the stink of the city trash collection day, but it grows worse as he gets closer. It coats the inside of his lungs. He gags, and then coughs. But the hole still grows closer. The stench fights him. It tries to force him back. Yet the light shining above calls to him, louder and louder with every step.
The feeling overtakes his body. He begins to giggle. This is his power! This is the power of the world! This is why he came here! The smell feels like an important part of it all, something he would never sense dragging and dropping on a screen. He is in the world, and he is not safe. He has the universe sitting upon his shoulders.
His feet reach the edge of the hole. He throws one fist up into the air, then the other, his shoulder’s protests quieted under the glory of the moment. He lifts his head back and laughs. He has made it. He is not sure where he has made it, but he knows that wherever it is, he was meant to be here. He opens his eyes into the golden sun, and the light screams back into his face. This is his moment! This is his time!
He drops his head to look down into the hole. What is he looking at? His laughter dies out. Plaid, denim. He sees them connected to a person. A hat connected to another.
He blinks, and the smell makes his eyes water. A dress, pushed up over the hips of another person. Two smaller people—children? Left and right. Up and down. One, two. None of them move. They all lie out in various stages of decomposition.
Bodies. It is unfamiliar to him. Everywhere across the hole. They are bodies. Dozens and dozens deep. They are people. They had been people. Their faces droop under the sweltering sun. Their eyes pop out from their skulls as shriveled bags, hanging low on their faces. Some have parts of their faces missing, the bones gleaming white in the sun. Arms with reaching palms and mounds of hair stick up from the bottom layers.
Arnie scans the pile of bodies over and over. The image means nothing to him. He has no context. The feeling of glory is slowly giving way to rising bile. Purple, gray, and red overtake his vision as his eyes drift away from their clothing onto the state of their skin. Rot. Rot. He can’t breathe.
He slowly inches back from the side of the hole, over the sand, toward the closer modular house. He can still see the contents of the hole clearly. When he blinks, the exact image is reproduced on the underside of his eyelids. Vomit rises in the back of his throat, and the fresh water thunders back out into the desert sand to make mud.
His retches are muffled under a different sound. Something mechanical sliding into place. He looks up from his doubled-over position. The doors on one of the hangars are opening.
Open. Open. The doors pull back and reveal a sort of forklift. But it is much larger than any forklift he has seen before. It carries a metal dome in its prongs, with a large circular opening on its side. It moves forward.
Arnie watches as it slowly rolls toward the hole. Behind it comes a box truck, moving just as slow. The two vehicles lumber toward the hole.
The forklift reaches the side of the hole and stops. The box truck stops as well, its brakes letting out a squeal.
The forklift inches up its payload, the dome rising above the side of the hole and eclipsing its contents. The sun bounces off of it and sends its golden light back onto the modular houses, their silver coating returning the beam. The forklift moves forward, then slowly begins to lower the dome. It covers the hole like a cap. The forklift slowly backs away, and then turns around, heading back for the hangar.
The idling truck clangs a gear into place and moves forward. It stops at the side of the dome, and the brakes squeal again. The engine stops. The rattling of the back of the box truck. Its hold opens, and in the setting sun, Arnie can see five or six men, shadowed and animated. Two haul a large steel box off the truck, the size of a refrigerator, and heft it over to the dome. Another emerges with a hose wrapped around him, another with a couple of buckets, another with wires.
They move into position by the side of the dome. With precision, two drop the steel box. The man with the hose swiftly connects it to the dome’s circular opening, screwing it into place between the opening and the back of the steel box. The man with wires threads them into place between the dome and the box. The buckets are dumped to one side of the steel box, and a metal chute is pulled from its side. Every man finishes his duty and checks the others’ work. Satisfied, the man with the wires goes to the back of the steel box, and hammers something into place.
All of them nod dutifully to one another, and shuffle back to the box truck. The back hatch is sealed. The engine starts up again, and then turns back around to the hanger. The mechanical clang of the doors shutting echoes into the desert.
Thump and grind. Shake and moan. The dome thrives, and lets out a hiss. A loud bang and another, a gray vapor pushing out at the sides of the hose with each sound.
Arnie stares at the dome, trying to make sense of any of the pieces. It rattles and shakes violently. The smell of the bodies is replaced with a growing smell of diesel fuel.
Squinting back at the hangar, Arnie waits for a sign of movement. Maybe he can pretend he hasn’t seen anything. Maybe he can ask one of the men to use the phone. The sun hasn’t set yet. Maybe he can still see the rocks.
He begins to move toward the hangar, but the dome bangs again. He pauses. It kicks up dust every time it shakes, less a machine and more like a wounded animal.
There is still a sickness in his stomach. But that sense of glory. It isn’t completely gone. Maybe this is what he is meant to see. Not the red rock, not the hole. Maybe it was in fact the dome the entire time.
As he approaches the side of the dome, he finds his thin face staring back at him in the greasy reflection. He turns to the steel box. There is no discernible detail on the front. It only appears to be metal. He moves to the back. Wires and ports stick out in every direction. A series of levers are tucked away on the right. There is nothing to really understand. There is no meaning to this art.
He turns the corner, and reaches the chute side. The dome bangs. Something in the steel box beeps. A suction sound comes from within the box. The hose shudders. Something black drops down the chute, and drips into the bucket.
Arnie squats over the bucket, and sticks his hand in. The substance shines on his hand. A rainbow appears in the black ooze as the sun hits it. He smells it. It is familiar.
He stands, still inhaling his hand. His left shoulder throbs. It throbs hard. There is a shooting pain in it. He hears a bang, and then another bang. It is not coming from the dome. Something hits his hip, the back of his leg.
He is falling over. He lies on his back. His hand rushes to his shoulder and finds an open hole, spewing blood over the black ooze. He can hear someone shouting something, but the words die out beneath the machine’s roar.
He looks to the dome as he lies in the sand. He finds its rivets. He finds its nuts and bolts. He finds its screws. They shift out of the vague polygon of the dome and into their basic forms. They spin around as the whole world spins around. They drag and drop into place.
The sand is made red by the blood and the sun.